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On the eve of Jim Calhoun’s retirement, UConn braces for an uncertain future

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Jim Calhoun (Getty Images)

Whether it was prostate cancer, NCAA allegations or merely a more talented basketball team than his own, Jim Calhoun never backed down from any fight no matter how high the odds were stacked against him.

In recent years, however, the legendary UConn coach finally encountered one opponent even he could not overcome: Age.

Calhoun reportedly will announce his retirement on Thursday, his 70-year-old body too achy and sore to coach another season after suffering a fractured left hip in an offseason bike accident and missing a month of last season due to an ailing back. He leaves behind a complicated legacy rife with historic victories and occasional controversies.

In 26 seasons at UConn, Calhoun won seven Big East tournament titles, made four Final Fours and captured three national championships. Connecticut was a basketball lightweight prior to Calhoun's arrival in 1986, but the fiery Massachusetts native built the Huskies into perennial Big East contenders for more than two decades.

Some of Calhoun's success was tainted a bit by the revelation he and his staff used a former team manager turned agent to help recruit Nate Miles. Calhoun fought bitterly to prove his innocence and keep his reputation untarnished, but the NCAA suspended him for three games last season and ruled that he failed to create an atmosphere of compliance.

[Related: UConn guard Shabazz Napier has surgery on injured right foot]

For all the great accomplishments Calhoun had at UConn, the one thing the Hall of Fame coach did not manage to do was leave his program at its peak. As a result, the future of the UConn program looks more uncertain than it did at any point in Calhoun's remarkably consistent tenure.

Interim coach Kevin Ollie will have to audition for the permanent job during a year in which the Huskies are ineligible for the postseason due to substandard APR scores and undermanned by their lofty standards. Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond bolted for the NBA draft last spring and veterans Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith and Michael Bradley all transferred.

Left amidst the rubble is a young, mostly unproven team with uncharacteristic holes in the frontcourt. Capable junior Shabazz Napier, electric sophomore Ryan Boatright and 6-foot-6 freshman Omar Calhoun anchor a promising backcourt, but the Huskies have no dominant force in the middle and they'll need a breakout season from Deandre Daniels to solidify the forward spot.

The youthful roster and lack of postseason opportunities provide both advantages and disadvantages for Ollie.

On the one hand, he'd probably only need a moderately successful regular season to win over UConn fans and ratchet up the pressure on the administration to award him a long-term contract. On the other hand, the Huskies are not well-positioned for Calhoun-level success long-term yet fans will clamor for a big-name head coach if Ollie doesn't have UConn contending for Big East titles and Final Fours within three years.

Of course, Ollie is likely only getting the chance to replace Calhoun because the legendary coach wants it that way.

Calhoun has stated many times he believes Ollie should succeed him, but it's no secret first-year athletic director Warde Manuel was too wary of Ollie's lack of head coaching experience to name him coach-in-waiting. Well, by dragging out his retirement until mid-to-late September, Calhoun has left Manuel with little choice but to hand the reins to someone within the program on an interim basis -- and Ollie is clearly the most obvious candidate.

The consistency Calhoun achieved for so long would make it difficult for his replacement to live up to his standard under any circumstances. As a result of the chaotic state of the UConn program at the moment, it will be even tougher.

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